BLAST OFF! NASA's MAVEN Mars probe ROARS into orbit
Now the tough part begins
Updated NASA's Mars probe MAVEN has successfully sneaked through its weather window and launched from Cape Canaveral at 13.28pm ET on Monday, before heavy weather could roll in and delay the launch.
And she's off
Scientists and engineers at the agency and Lockheed Martin have spent the last five years building the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution spacecraft (MAVEN), a 2.5-ton orbital platform that will probe what remains of the Red Planet's atmosphere to work out how Mars lived, and how we can live on it - as well as carry a small haiku payload.
Add into that was the problem of the recent government shutdown, which temporarily stalled work on MAVEN. There were fears that this would push its launch window back two years, but in the end a modicum of sanity won through and funding was found.
So it was with some relief that the twin-nozzles on the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, running on rocket-grade kerosene and liquid oxygen, fired off successfully, producing an estimated 860,200 pounds of thrust that lifted the rocket into orbit around Earth. After a four minute 17 second burn, the liquid hydrogen engines in the Centaur stage of the rocket took over and boosted MAVEN into orbit.
The probe and its rocket are now on a 10-minute coast phase before a second burn before the rocket detaches. If all goes well MAVEN will head off to Mars, getting there on 22 September, 2014 to begin its survey. The spacecraft will begin a series of elliptical orbits around Mars, sliding low into the upper atmosphere to give its instrument package information on the gases and ion data it finds.
It's not there yet
At some point in the last few billion years Mars was a relatively fecund place, with liquid water on the surface and possibly the conditions for life to form. But the planet lost its atmosphere, and boffins at NASA want to know why and how. So MAVEN will look at what's left and see how it is escaping from the planet.
As important is understanding what comes in to the atmosphere, and what' if any protection it still provides for the surface. That's going to be crucial to deciding if mankind can safely explore the planet without serious risk to life and limb.
NASA will now focus on stabilizing the craft's course, opening up the solar panels, and firing up the probe's electronics. While the launch is one of the most dangerous phases getting into orbit doesn't give you any guarantees – ask anyone on the Phobos-Grunt team at the Russian space agency.
All systems are go on MAVEN and the probe is currently on course for Mars.
MAVEN successfully separated from its Centaur rocket stage 53 minutes and 18 seconds after launch and the internal electronics package, powered by lithium-ion batteries, started communications with ground control. NASA has successfully deployed the spacecraft's solar cells and all the telemetry is looking on target said the agency.
"We're currently about 14,000 miles away from Earth and heading out to the Red Planet right now," said MAVEN Project Manager David Mitchell of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.
We're in the pipe, five by five
At a press conference after the launch NASA said that it hopes - if the targeting was exactly right - to get a close up view of comet ISON, which is currently speeding its way through the Solar System. The ultraviolet detectors on MAVEN will be fired up and should send back useful data about the comet's progress and composition, and other sensors will relay data on conditions during the rest of the trip.
There now remains the piffling problem of successfully making the ten-month, 400 million-mile trip to Mars, then using the planet to slow itself and enter the right orbit, avoiding any software problems and/or hardware failures along the way. NASA has established a 10Mbps connection to the probe and will be updating software and mission data throughout its flight.
The first course correction is scheduled for December 3 and the expected arrival time is September 22 2014, whereupon it will spend five weeks firing up its three main instrument packages and checking they have survived the trip. It will also establish a link with the Curiosity rover to act as a data relay.
After than MAVEN will carry on sending back data for as long as possible, and based on NASA's experience that could be a very long time. The Mars Odyssey spacecraft is still working well after over 12 years in orbit and the pint-sized Opportunity rover will reach its ten-year anniversary of rolling over the Martian regolith in January.
There is always the vanishingly minute possibility of little green folk interfering with the mission, but as everyone knows, "the chances against anything manlike on Mars are a million to one." ®